Love is as Love Does: A Meditation on the Litany of Love In St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians

In his great treatise on the Theological Virtue of Love, St. Paul sets forth a kind of symphony in three movements. In yesterday’s post we saw the first movement, wherein he teaches on the primacy and prerequisite of love to inform other virtues, lest they lack either a proper balance or proper object. Indeed, without love many of our excellencies, good though they are can become detached, disordered, and even dangerous.

Today is set forth the second movement wherein St. Paul and the Holy Spirit describe love in a litany-like manner. The litany is both memorable and vivid.

MOVEMENT II. The PORTRAIT of Love The text says,

Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous, It is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor 13:4-7)

Perhaps what first occurs to us the CHALLENGE of these things. Indeed the list may overwhelm us with its sweeping and perfect contours. We may wonder how we can ever be patient at all times, never brood over injury, and so forth.

But that leads us to the CAUSE of these things- Note that Love causes these things. These things are the result of Love not the cause of it.

It is too easy for us to turn a litany like this into a moralism such that I must somehow accomplish them out of my own flesh power and, having done so, “accomplish” love, or meet the demands of love. But the reality is the opposite. Namely, as I receive love from God and experience it in my life, I begin to see these fruits which Paul lists, in my life. Love as a Theological Virtue is infused (i.e. poured into) the soul and, if we allow it, it has the effects St. Paul describes here.

St. Augustine’s oft quoted maxim comes to mind: Once for all, then, a short precept is given unto you: Love God, and do what you will: whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare: In all things, let the root of love be within, for of this root can nothing spring but what is good. [In epistulam Ioannis ad Parthos (Tractatus VII, 8)]

Properly understood this links our will, rightly ordered, to the Love of God. For when I love God, I want what God wants and do not want what he wants.  And I do this not as a mere human work, but as the result of a supernatural virtue, Love.

Thus what St. Paul and the Holy Spirit are about to do is to paint a kind of picture of what the human person, transformed by Grace and Love, is like. The portrait is not an exhaustive list, but uses what we might call “focal instances” which use certain traits to illustrate what is in fact a far greater reality. So, more than a prescription here, we have a description of what happens to the person indwelt by the Holy Spirit and transformed by Love.

So lets look to the description,

1. Love is Patient – The Greek word μακροθυμεῖ (makrothumei)  describes a person who has it easily in his power to avenge himself but does not do so. More literally it means to suffer long or be “long-suffering,” refusing to retaliate with anger. Our translation says love is patient. To be patient is the capacity or willingness to suffer on account of others, or on account of a situation.

Love moderates anger and increases our ability to suffer on account of others by giving us a positive disposition toward them.

Many years ago when I was High School and trying to date a girl, I was delighted when she asked me to carry some heavy books for her, (and they were very heavy). But love lightens every load and I was excited and happy to help. (By the way, I got the date).

While, properly speaking, the “love” described in this example is not the Theological virtue per se, it is like unto it and can serve to illustrate that when we love God and our neighbor, our positive disposition toward the beloved is increased and this makes whatever burdens or hardships seem light, and whatever slights or misunderstandings might arise, they will tend to be interpreted by us in a more benign light. Jesus beautifully illustrates when from the Cross he says, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”

2. Love is Kind – The Greek word here is χρηστεύομαι (chresteuomai) and while properly translated as “kind” is also rooted in the Greek word chrestos which describes the capacity to furnish what is suitable, useful, productive, well-fitting or beneficial.

Jesus said, “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt 11:30) and the Greek word used is chrestos. Thus what Jesus most clearly means is that the yoke he has for us is “well fitted” to us. The Lord does not impose the cross light some cruel task-master, but rather gives a cross that is well suited to us, that fits our condition and will ultimately benefit us.

Thus, those who love have the capacity to act toward others in ways that are most helpful or beneficial. To be “kind” is not just to please, but is to act in the way most appropriate for the true needs of the other, not merely according to the wants of the other. Even if at times there must be some action the other does not prefer, love empowers us to act benevolently, and with proper gentleness and reserve. This capacity to act with clarity moderated by reserve and gentleness emerges from the serene state love creates since we experience that we are acting out of love and what is truly best, our conscience is clear and we feel no need to be stridently defensive about what we do. This brings serenity, and serenity brings a kindness and gentleness.

3. Love is not Jealous – The Greek word is ζηλοῖ (zeloi) and is better translated as envy. In fact zeloi describes a kind of boiling anger in its root meaning. Envy is sorrow or anger at the goodness or excellence of another because I take it to lessen my own excellence. In other words, seeing some goodness or excellence in someone else makes me mad or sad because I think I look bad by comparison. But rather than seeking to imitate the good I see in another or at least to rejoice in their gift or good fortune, I seek to destroy what is good in them or denigrate it somehow. St. Augustine called envy, THE diabolical sin since it seeks to destroy goodness. At least jealousy and greed seek to possess, but envy seeks to destroy.

But Love is glad of the gifts of others and seeks to imitate them where possible. When we really love others we rejoice in the gifts they have received and delight to praise them. We seek for opportunities to encourage and celebrate with people we love, we look for opportunities to build them up and encourage them. In short, we are happy when those we love are flourishing and blessed.

Again this happens as the result of the good and positive dispositions that love creates in us toward those whom we love.

4. Love is not pompous – The Greek word here is περπερεύεται (perpereuetai) which comes from the Greek word for “braggart.” It describes a “show off” who needs too much attention. But love naturally focuses more on the beloved than on one’s own self. Love is naturally directed outward at the other, and has its attention there rather than inward to the self. Love does not need to brag for it is content to rejoice in the presence and goodness of others.

5. Love is not inflated – The Greek Word φυσιοῦται (physioutai) comes from the word physa, meaning “air-bellows.” Thus the word describes a blustery person, swelled up like a bellows, full of hot air. Thus, an egotistical person blustering arrogant, puffed-up thoughts.But here again, as we see, Love is outward toward the beloved, not inward toward the self. Thus love remedies this tendency by shifting our focus away from our ego and self-aggrandizement toward others and delight in them.

6. Love is not quick tempered – Our given translation here is a bit interpretive but not incorrect. The Greek term is ἀσχημονεῖ (aschemuonei). The Greek root of this is asxḗmōn,  meaning “without proper shape or form.” Thus, by extension it means to act improperly, to lack proper form, to act or be indecent and unbecoming.  But in the presence of those we love acting rudely, and in such manner in unlikely. While we may be relaxed and not need lots of formalities, still we will not be impolite or ill-mannered. We will tend to defer to the needs of others whom we love and seek their comfort and well-being. Again, Love does this naturally, and the theological virtue does this supernaturally. We simply do not want to be rude, impolite or discourteous to those we love.

7. nor does [love] brood over injury – The Greek word translated here as “brood” is λογίζομαι (logizomai) and is actually an accounting term meaning, “to keep books”, compute, “take into account” or reckon. But love gives understanding and accepts the struggles and shortfalls of others. It tends to be forgetful of shortfalls and remember the good.

Neither does love presume the worst motives, and so does not as easily take offense in the first place.

Once again, love supplies us with a positive disposition toward the other which tends to overlook offenses or interpret them in more benign and less vivid ways. Hence we are (super)naturally less likely to brood, to keep books on the other and demand a strict accounting that says, “did this so you have to do that.” Love gives because it wants to, not because it will get something back.

8. Love rejoices over the truth rather than over wrong-doing – The Greek word translated here as “rejoice” is χαίρω (chairo), which, while it does mean rejoice also contains the notion in its root xar, of being favorably disposed, or leaning leaning towards something. Thus, we are dealing with a joy that inclines one toward something.

Now, if you really love God then you will love what and who he loves. The saints say, “If God wants it, I want it. If God doesn’t want it, I don’t want it.” Again, back in High School I dated a girl who liked Square-dancing. I had no interest in that before I met her, but I got to like it because I loved her, besides, it was a steady Saturday date! 🙂 I also began to know and love her family. Love naturally loves what the beloved loves.

Now God loves what is true and good, what is just and merciful, what is chaste and generous, and so forth. Thus, as one who loves him more and more, I too rejoice in and am inclined to these very things. Further, I am averse, increasingly to sin, injustice, greed, unchastity and so forth. Love puts me in sync with the Beloved.

This also shows why love cannot ignore wrong-doing in our relationships but summons us to honestly acknowledge what is in need of reproof and correction and to address it in charity.

9. Love bears  all things, The Greek word here στέγει (stegei) more literally means to put something under a roof. And thus one can endure or bear things because they are shielded, in this case under the Lord’s protection or covering. As was stated above, lightens every load. Love gives us a glad heart, and along with that joy and gladness is the energy, the capacity to endure, to bear with hardships. Covered as we are by the Lord’s love, we can endure.

10. Love endures all things – Here is a related concept. The Greek Word here is ὑπομένει (hypomenei) which means more literally to remain under something, remain behind, or endure, to stand one’s ground, and thus to show endurance. Here again, love supplies the zeal and interest in doing this. When we love someone or something we are will to exert effort to attain what or who we love. We are willing to endure difficulties, even gladly. Love does this willingly, naturally, or in the case of the Theological virtue, supernaturally.

11. Love believes all things. The Greek word here is rooted in the common word used in the Scriptures to faith and belief: πιστεύει (pisteuei). This word mean is derived from peíthō, meaning to “persuade, or be persuaded” and as a consequence to  believe and have confidence. Now again, when we love someone we are going to be more inclined to trust and have confidence in what they tell us. Love opens a door of relationship, and relationship roots us in trust and to communion in thoughts and vision. Thus our love for God helps to deepen our faith and trust in him.

Even at the human level our love for others deepens our faith in them. We usually are more confident, trusting and believe the best and for the best of those we love. Love stirs us to believe that the best is possible for those whom he love and we are will to take risks for them in this regard. Thus Love inspires Faith in God, and even a human faith in others.

12. Love hopes all things The Greek word here is ἐλπίζει (elpizei) and is from the root word elpomai, meaning to anticipate or expect. Thus note that hope is more than a vague wish for some positive outcome. Hope is the confident expectation of God’s help.

Here too love inspires and causes a deepening hope, for when we love and experience love, we do not doubt God’s favorable disposition, and his will to ultimately save us from this present evil age. Love fuels confidence, and confidence fuels the vigorous expectation of God’s help that we call Hope.

All these things love does. Note again this very important point. The litany of love we have just reflected on speaks of the fruits of Love. We must not understand this litany as a “to do” list, as if to say, “Do these things and you’ll love.” No, no! “Love and you’ll do these things.” Or rather, God will do them in you. It is true that we can look to a list like this and see ways to intentionally act, and practices to foster, but in the end, if these things are going to last, they must be the work of God in us, the fruit of His love.

Tomorrow the Final of the Three Movements of this Symphony on Love.

15 Replies to “Love is as Love Does: A Meditation on the Litany of Love In St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians”

  1. A song by Tenth Avenue North – Losing – and your words bring me strength
    God Bless you Msgr.

  2. Recently I read [I’ve forgotten where,sorry,] that when St. John the Evangelist was very very old and enfeebled,he preached his sermon,” to love one another,” and when his disciples and congregation heard this, repeatedly, they enquired his reason,and his reply,, that it is ” our only requirement… ” [well, along those lines anyway.]

  3. Lovely post, Msgr. And the image of you square dancing is a fascinating one. Many thanks for another wonderful post!

  4. JMJ

    Very helpful, so much so I will keep it close to relect on it often. Thank you so kindly. God be with you.

  5. “Correction given in anger, however
    tempered by reason, never has so much effect as that which is given
    altogether without anger; for the reasonable soul being naturally
    subject to reason, it is a mere tyranny which subjects it to passion,
    and whereinsoever reason is led by passion it becomes odious, and its
    just rule obnoxious.”–St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part III, Chapter 8, first paragraph

    1. Sometimes, I think there is a kind of joyful anger like when Lou Pinella would argue with the umpire and then rip out third base and throw it into the dugout.

    2. Great quote. I’ll see your de Sales and call with a bit of Cicero,

      “Most of all is anger to be eliminated in punishment; for he who enters on the office of punishment in anger will never preserve that mean between too much and too little.” De Officiis

      “As, then, it belongs to friendship both to admonish and to be admonished, and to do the former freely, yet not harshly, to receive the latter patiently, not resentfully.” De Amicitia

  6. Not to go off-topic, but what’s with the translation of 1 Cor. 13:3? “That I may boast”? At first I thought it was a typo. Where’s that come from?

    1. I am not sure what translation you are talking about. I am not familiar with this translation. The Greek is pretty straight-forward τὸ σῶμα μου ἵνα καυχήσωμαι (literally, the body of me that I might be burned)

      1. It was in our Sunday missalette. Not sure who publishes it. It appears also in the USCCB’s on line bible.

  7. The Latin word – beningius – is translated into kind. St. Thomas comments that this denotes a “good fire” which makes metal molten and moveable. The love of God is a good fire to the heart who receives good things and moves them on to his neighbor.

  8. Thank you so much for this! I yearn to love more. I have been writng in my journel and trying to understand more of what my problems are and where I stumble. This helps greatly. I always enjoy your writings, but this one has such fullness.

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